PC-Engine: Oct.-Dec. 1989

How were PC-Engine and PCE-CD games made?

Well, back in the day (late 1980s/early '90s) the NEC PC-98xx series of computers were the development workhorses for small companies.  (Larger companies used weirder minicomputers or Sharp X68000s, etc.)  Seen below are several PC-9801VX models, which use a 10Mhz Intel 286-equivalent CPU, with 16 colours on-screen out of 4096.  5-1/4" floppy drives.  A very simple, basic, graphics workstation.

For developers who bought PCE dev hardware from NEC, they were lucky enough to develop their code, graphics, and music on the PC-98, assemble it, then transfer the ROM data through an interface to a small, black cubic tower called the Hu7 or Hu7CD dev box.  These dev boxes offered real-time debugging and visualization of game backgrounds, so you'll see a lot of these developers with 2 monitors next to each other: one of them is the PC-Engine's display.  It sure beats the copying-, erasing-, EPROM-writing (often on separate, floppy-based EPROM writing machines!) cycle hell that Famicom developers went through.

Below is a typical-looking graphics editor, with a tile view on the left, zoomed-in pixel view on the right, and thumbnail view of that bank's tiles in the centre-left.  Obviously it doesn't really use the artist-oriented canvas/animation model that the classic Deluxe Paint does.

The tile data are from the Ultra Box (CD) main menu.

Music is typically made by having a MIDI keyboard & synthesizer (Yamaha DX-7 is mentioned in the example) connected to the computer.  Sequencer software on the computer can then record the live playing session, and have the notes edited, etc.  The final stage is conversion from the sequencer data to a format that the PCE can play (most likely MML, probably using an external conversion tool.)

How does a developer create a PCE CD game in 1989, when CD games run up to 650MB, and the computers of the day use 720K floppies and 20MB hard drives?

Well, there's no choice but to invest in a 600 MB hard drive tower with internal 8mm tape backup drive (see below.)

The Hu7CD dev system would access this huge hard drive as a simulated CD-ROM disc, and when the game was ready for mastering, all the data would be spooled onto the tape and sent to the CD mastering house.

Get ready to put some protective padding on your jaw, because the price of this 600MB HD/Tape tower was US$ 144,000... in 1989 dollars!

Below is a small CD-audio mixing/copying station, operated by sound engineer Toshiyuki Sasagawa.  Game music is recorded by the musician in a studio somewhere onto digital audio tape (DAT) which can then be loaded into the PCE development hardware as an audio track.

More about this whole process can be seen in this YouTube video!

In this photo we can see the ubiquitous PC-98 computer, a PCE-CD unit above it, and possibly a Hu7CD dev unit to the right of that.

Sitting on the floor is the giant 600MB hard drive / CD simulator.


Over at SUNSOFT...

...it's a little more modest.

Whereas Hudson was all high-tech and big-hardware, Sunsoft didn't really do anything ambitious -- at all -- on the PC-Engine.  It's really a shame they didn't devote more time and staff to PCE development.

Most of their PCE games are quirky RPGs or licensed properties (Batman maze game, anyone?) and their later CD games were often conversions of Western computer games (Lemmings, The Manhole).  Weird.

We learn about Sunsoft's small development team in Tokyo (Sun's HQ is in Aichi Prefecture) through an interview and profile in Gekkan PC-Engine magazine, to help promote their upcoming RPG, Benkei Gaiden.

The 4 (?)-man development team is introduced, minus the musician Masashi Kageyama (composed Gimmick!! and Out Live) and other staff, showing their development schedule, design meetings, and parties/outings for blowing off steam.

Why didn't you show us the PCE Batman platformer, guys???

main programmer
Atsushi Sakai, a veteran on the Famicom
Atsushi Hatano
game designer
Kou Ishikawa
scenario writer
Ichiro Nakamura
Here's the exhausted-looking foursome, plus a receptionist in the back.  It's like Glengarry Glen Ross, I tell you! Sakai with his Hu7 development system at the far right.
We can see Benkei Gaiden running on the screen, a Hu7 binder next to it (juicy stuff!)... and crates of unsold Sunsoft games below it all.
Ah, so this was the main purpose of their Tokyo offices. ;-)
Benkei graphics being edited on this PC.
And we get to see some development sketches, such as how the art gets transferred to the computer, not exclusively by graph paper, I hope.
A familiar sign in a communal work area: "DON'T TOUCH!!!" Hmm... do the suits and the devs really want to be at this party together? And here's a depiction of their low points during the making of the game.

(Is that guy throwing around a hemorrhoid cushion...?)


Artists and Developers at work on Monbit

Here we can see Mr. Tobita, Ms.Ito, visual scene artist Mukai, and main programmer Kikuchi in front of their computers.  Visible are PC-98 computers, a Twin Famicom, and other interfaces, hard drives, etc.  Kikuchi has at least 2 computers at his desk!!

As a bonus, here's a screenshot of NCS Masaya's Dragon Egg being edited on their computer.